When I first thought about writing this post, I thought the answer was simple: “Don’t go.”
That was just me being a smarty pants, though. The real answer is that are some very easy things you can do to make sure your visit to a museum with your toddler isn’t an absolute trainwreck. Some of these things should be done beforehand, some during your visit, and some after your visit.
Before You Go
- If you can, visit the museum ahead of time without your child. Do some scouting. Find the restrooms and the spaces where eating is permitted. You will almost undoubtedly hear, “I’m hungry!” or “Oh, I gotta go potty!” right in the middle of your exploration.
- Choose a modern collection if you can. Three-dimensional works; works with simple shapes and bright colors; and works with objects that are familiar make the collection more accessible for young ones. Artists such as Friedman, Rothko, Lichtenstein, and Warhol come to mind. You may not have works by these artists near you, but see if you can find some common themes among them and match them up with what is available to you.
- Prepare yourself emotionally and plan for your visit to last no more than an hour. Kids usually tap out around then. My son and I spend more time in the car driving to our local museum than we do in the museum itself. Each visit gets more and more efficient and we are slowly spending more and more time in a collection. Totally worth the up front investment, but it took a lot of patience on my part in the beginning.
- Do some reading on museums as educational centers for life-long learners. Two of my favorite works are The Promise of Cultural Institutions by David Carr and The Gloom of the Museum by John Cotton Dana. You don’t have to read them in their entirety. Flip through them. Try to get a broader understanding of what museums are and how they are intended to enrich civic life. You may find yourself wondering if department stores are museums. Seriously.
- Try to find out which specific works are in the museum. Locate images of them online and show them to your child. This provides exposure ahead of time and makes recognition of those works in person a much richer experience. “Hey, Dad! We saw this on your computer!” Exposure ahead of time opens up space for teachable moments.
While You Are There
- If you weren’t able to do some scouting ahead of time, locate the restrooms and spaces where eating is permitted so you can quickly resolve any sudden emergencies. This is worth repeating. I make my son visit the restroom as soon as we get there. Even if he relieved himself right before we loaded everything into the car, I take him to the restroom. If he needs a snack, I know where we can take a quick break.
- Pack snacks. I carry a shoulder bag that is small enough to be carried into our local museum’s collections. (My museum makes visitors check bags over a certain size.) There is typically a granola bar, a pouch of applesauce, a box of raisins, and a juice box in it. The things are lightweight, fairly neat, and easy to dispose of unlike an apple core or banana peel. I usually just pack the empties back in the bag and dispose of them later.
- Establish boundaries and rules. No climbing. No touching. No running off. This is a good time to be a helicopter parent. I caught my son spinning on a column in the cafe before we entered the collection. This reminded me that I needed to create some rules regarding how to interact with works of art. “You cannot climb on anything. You cannot touch anything. You cannot run off on your own.” These are especially important if you want to take a moment for yourself and enjoy a work or two.
- Ask your child questions. “What do you see?” “What is collected here?” “Why is this bench here instead of over there?” The answers might be simple at first, but keep it at. Resting spaces and the locations of benches and chairs were all built into the very architecture of the museum from the beginning. There is purpose behind every tiny detail, even the direction a chair faces. The question is not, “Why is this chair here?” The question is, “What does the museum want you to experience by placing this chair here facing that direction and looking out that particular window?” Don’t be afraid to ask your child questions like these.
You might learn something unexpected.You’ll learn something completely unexpected.
- The gift shop. My first inclination is to advise you to avoid it. You don’t want the highlight of your child’s visit to be a shopping experience. Then again, let’s say your child really took to a piece of art. In the gift shop, you see there is a postcard with that same piece on it. For a couple of bucks, you can have a replica of your child’s favorite new piece that is small enough and light enough for her to carry on her own. You can even get an inexpensive frame and mount it on a wall in your home. My front hallway is plastered with all kinds of my son’s creations. Most of them are scribbles of marker or paint or crayon on different kinds of paper, but he has designated this space as “My museum,” and he recently invited me to be a visiting artist. True story.
After Your Trip
- Repeat the “What’s collected here?” exercise at home. For example, grab three different tools, lay them side-by-side, and ask again, “What’s collected here?” You’ll probably get the obvious answer: “Tools.” Don’t stop there, though. Ask again and you might hear something like “Things for mommy’s hands,” or “Things that are heavy.” Grab sets of other things (hats, books, pieces of fruit) and repeat. You’ll notice that your child is making deeper connections between objects using both their left and right brain. You’ll also notice there are connections you hadn’t thought about it. This will enrich your next experience with a museum. It may also help you decide whether a department store is a museum, too. (Why did they put this rack next to that one? What’s collected here? What is the experience they are trying to create for me?)
- If you don’t have some already, pick up some art supplies. I have all kinds of random supplies already: chalk, washable paint, colored pencils, paper, etc., but those have been gathered over time and are in different bags and broken cartons. Recently, I picked up a 100 piece “artist kit” for $5. It has color pencils, crayons, mini markers, oil pastels, watercolor cakes, drawing paper, a pencil, paint brush, eraser, and sharpener. The quality is pretty low (it’s $5!), but everything snaps into place in a lightweight carrying case with a handle. The great thing about this is that it gives a child ownership of their artistic endeavors which helps develop a sense of mastery over something. It also makes clean up much easier for you.